Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Your Love Was Writ In Sand

One doesn't have to look very far to find massive amounts of literary criticism claiming Christina Rossetti as a forerunner of the feminist movement. I have even seen articles touting Goblin Market as Rossetti's lesbian manifesto.

I agree that she was a very strong woman, impressively so. Yes, I would call her a feminist. The trouble is that while she was a feminist, the movement that now bears that name is something entirely different than anything that Rossetti ever contemplated.

In Cousin Kate we hear a strong, angry, almost a violent call for women to protect each other from men who fail or refuse to protect them. Her anger is directed more against "Cousin Kate" for her spinelessness than against the man who wronged her. This seems to me to be truly feminist.

But how many feminists these days share her assumption that it was the man's duty to protect her in the first place? How many believe in shame? How many hold her ideal of a woman as a dove? And how many even consider children a gift anymore?

Perhaps the feminists who claim her should not ask whether she might be in their camp, perhaps they should ask whether they are in hers.

Cousin Kate

I was a cottage maiden
Hardened by sun and air,
Contented with my cottage mates,
Not mindful I was fair.
Why did a great lord find me out,
Why did he praise my flaxen hair?
Why did a great lord find me out,
To fill my heart with care?

He lured me to his palace home--
Woe's me for joy thereof--
To lead a shameless shameful life,
His plaything and his love.
He wore me like a silken knot,
He changed my like a glove;
So now I moan, an unclean thing,
Who might have been a dove.

O Lady Kate, my cousin Kate,
You grew more fair than I:
He saw you at your father's gate,
Chose you, and cast me by.
He watched your steps along the lane,
Your work among the rye;
He lifted you from mean estate
To sit with him on high.

Because you were so good and pure
He bound you with his ring:
The neighbors call you good and pure,
Call me an outcast thing.
Even so I sit and howl in dust,
You sit in gold and sing:
Now which of us has tenderer heart?
You had the stronger wing.

O cousin Kate, my love was true,
Your love was writ in sand:
If he had fooled not me but you,
If you stood where I stand,
He'd not have won me with his love
Nor bought me with his land;
I would have spit into his face
And not have taken his hand.

Yet I've a gift you have not got,
And seem not like to get:
For all your clothes and wedding-ring
I've little doubt you fret.
My fair-haired son, my shame, my pride,
Cling closer, closer yet:
Your father would give lands for one
To wear his coronet.


John W. May said...

One can certainly feel what amounts to tempered or highly controlled anger. Perhaps 'righteous indignation' would be a better expression. The truth is I'm surprised at her open courage to do what I thought was forbidden for women to do in the Victorian period: make complaint.

Doug P. Baker said...

Yes, I think that was kind of radical at the time. Gutsy!